Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - This weekend’s Super Rugby activity for South African teams ought to give Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer
a potentially educative look at several fullbacks.
The Bulls are the domestic franchise with a bye, meaning that Zane Kirchner
, the 28-year-old national team incumbent at No 15, is the only notable absentee from activity
But Kirchner would have been sidelined anyway, following revelations that he suffered a finger dislocation in the controversial 23-20 last-gasp defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra, which saw the Loftus-based team return home with an unsatisfactory three losses from the four Australasian tour games.
The fact that he has had some surgery and will be off the park for an estimated six weeks means that rivals for the Bok role in 2013 have a handy opportunity - starting immediately - to strengthen their own challenges for the last-line-of-defence duty.
Meyer stuck pretty defiantly to Kirchner, the original Steady Eddie not renowned for producing the unexpected, for much of last season’s Bok programme, and in fairness he ended 2012 (when South Africa eked out an unbeaten northern hemisphere tour at the end of it) having done little wrong as the coach maintained a largely conservative game-plan.
Kirchner was, in fact, one of the most influential figures in the final outing before the much-needed summer break, when the Boks pipped England 16-15 at Twickenham to ensure the three-game clean sweep.
But the George-born dreadlocked competitor was well suited to the heavy-pitch conditions in Ireland and the UK, and many pundits hope to see at least the seeds of a brave new way when the Boks have a reasonably lightweight, on paper, agenda during the “June window” including the challenges of Italy (Durban, June 8) and a Scotland side minus any Lions representatives (Nelspruit, June 15).
On often firmer, faster South African surfaces, are there better options than the generally safety-first Kirchner at the back?
In his absence, others can show their mettle ... starting at Kings Park on Friday night when the often single-minded, mercurial and versatile Frans Steyn
effectively reignites his once blossoming fullback career for the Sharks against the Crusaders in what should be another contest of Test-like intensity.
The big unit had mostly been serving the inside centre channel of late, but then when things went pear-shaped for the Sharks against the Brumbies recently, he was fingered as a significant culprit in the unexpectedly heavy home reverse and relegated to the bench for the bounce-back thrashing of the Rebels.
His conditioning has also been under the microscope, with franchise coach John Plumtree admitting that they were working to bring him back to his “fighting weight of around 105kg” from a pre-season 118kg and following lengthy absence with an ankle injury.
With a bit of luck, Steyn is close to where he needs to be in weight terms, and how he performs at No 15 against the Crusaders will doubtless be watched by Meyer and many others with keen interest.
His mere physical presence can certainly be a reassuring element in the position, whilst his booming boot could again become a particularly effective weapon in the greater space and time the fullback often enjoys to weigh up either clearance or counter-attacking options.
As things stand, Stormers and current Bok captain Jean de Villiers has been playing with hunger and sharpness at inside centre (when he and Steyn were paired in midfield for early Bok games last year, De Villiers had to switch to No 13), so probably deserves to be stationed in his most familiar post when the Test season gets underway.
Fullback, then, could be Steyn’s best ticket to a Bok start, so he ought not to lack motivation if he gets an extended run there over the next few weeks.
Then on Saturday, in Bloemfontein, two further possible candidates go head to head: the Cheetahs’ often under-appreciated Hennie Daniller, who is another notable individual height-wise at 1.94m, with Jaco Taute of the Stormers.
The latter was the designated fullback cover for Kirchner off the bench - though he didn’t get onto the park - in that last Bok Test at Twickenham, and on Wednesday was promoted back off the Stormers bench to a start at No 15, with diminutive Joe Pietersen
shifting to right wing after the 19-14 loss to the Crusaders at Newlands.
The tweak to the back three was due in no small measure to Gerhard van den Heever becoming just the latest addition to the Capetonians’ ongoing injury hoodoo.
But it nevertheless gives Taute - only recently turned 22, and still one of the most promising longer-term prospects for the Boks - a fresh chance to nail down the slot in Stormers colours after a tentative start to his temporary, loan career with them and then own injury setback.
Coach Allister Coetzee
will doubtless wish to see Taute back to his purposeful, fast-paced best in the important derby, and expect Meyer to harbour very similar desires ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwingHAVE YOUR SAY:
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